A guide to Bluegrass Country’s first-rate meeting cities
The state’s key convening regions are strong as thoroughbreds, and Kentucky’s hospitality and meetings industry professionals also know how to keep events going to the finish line.
Well known for horse racing, auto manufacturing, distilleries, tobacco farming and bluegrass music, Kentucky also promotes the arts, particularly with the acclaimed Humana Festival of New American Plays, held each spring at the Actors Theatre of Louisville and drawing theater professionals and enthusiasts from more than 40 states and nine countries. Of course, opportunities to hear bluegrass music are plentiful, and the genre is notably celebrated at the annual Festival of the Bluegrass, held in June at the Kentucky Horse Park Campground in Lexington.
The Civil War Sesquicentennial runs through 2015 with events throughout the region. Though Kentucky was a slave state, it declined to secede from the Union, making it “neutral” and literally a state in the middle of the war. Its northern border, covering more than 650 miles, marked part of the Mason Dixon Line and many of the final stops on the Underground Railroad. Frankfort was the only Northern state capital to be taken by the Confederates. Interestingly, President Lincoln was born in Kentucky. The state is rich with sites marking battles large and small that groups can visit today.
Lost River Cave, Bowling Green
Kentucky is the only state with most of its boundaries formed by rivers: the Mississippi to the west, the Ohio on the north and the Big Sandy and Tug Fork rivers to the east. Central rivers include the Cumberland, Green and Tennessee. The primary regions are the eastern Appalachian Mountains area, marked by scenic passages, river gorges and famous bourbon distillery tours; the south-central region with Bowling Green and Mammoth Cave National Park; and the north-central region, encompassing the business centers of Lexington and Louisville and the setting for the Kentucky Derby. Northern Kentucky includes the three-county area along the banks of the Ohio River just south of Cincinnati. It has all the advantages of a major urban center with spacious conference facilities, arts and culture, and airlift.
The state benefits from its proximity to both Midwest and Southeastern states for drive meetings; and with strong regional airline service to Cincinnati, Louisville and Nashville, it’s a contender for national meetings as well.
Horses of the World Park at Kentucky Horse Park, Lexington
WHERE TO MEET
The most popular cities to convene in are unsurprisingly the primary population centers of Lexington and Louisville and the northern counties adjacent to Cincinnati. Yet the quaint capital city Frankfort also appeals, and the university towns of Bowling Green and Owensboro offer regional flavor that entices smaller groups.
Why we love it: As the horse capital of the world, Lexington offers a true experience in the world of equestrian life. It has private ranch tours; the Kentucky Horse Park, offering a variety of group activities and facilities; The Red Mile quarter horse and harness racetrack; and the International Museum of the Horse. There are also brewery and distillery tours and tastings throughout the county.
Standout feature: Bluegrass countryside and related agricultural, distillery and equestrian activities, paired with warm hospitality. It’s a natural drive-meeting destination for regional associations, incentive programs and education groups.
Convene here: The Lexington Center complex. The Lexington Convention Center has 130,000 sq. ft. Of banquet, exhibition and meeting space. The complex also includes the 1,000-seat Lexington Opera House; 23,000-seat Rupp Arena, home of the University of Kentucky Wildcats; and two retail levels with boutiques and a food court. The venue is situated downtown within walking distance to theater, dining and hotels.
Stay here: Hilton Lexington Downtown Hotel. This well-appointed luxury 366-room hotel is connected to the Lexington Center convention facilities. Groups can walk to art events and parks. Hyatt Regency Lexington, also downtown, is attached to the arena and close to the convention center. In April, plans were announced to convert the old First National building downtown into a new 21c Museum Hotel along the same lines as its sister property in Louisville.
Bond here: Woodford Reserve Distillery. Located in Versailles, the rambling facility can host 225 for receptions or 150 for a seated dinner. Attendees can learn about the bourbon-making process and taste the results. In addition, two new bourbon distilleries are located downtown. Inside the Lexington Distillery District, Barrel House Distilling Company is producing a variety of spirits, including Devil John Moonshine, Oak Rum and Pure Blue Vodka. Adjacent to the Lexington Distillery District, Alltech is constructing a new $4.5 million distillery for production of its Town Branch bourbon, scheduled to open in the fall.
Dine here: Portofino. This local favorite serves contemporary American and Italian cuisine. A wine room holds groups of up to 24 seated, a private dining room holds up to 100 and a buyout accommodates 275 seated or up to 900 for a reception. Feast on choices such as chicken balsamico, Atlantic salmon and wild mushroom ravioli.
The Brown Hotel, Louisville
Why we love it: The city has an eclectic combination of blockbuster sports events, history, first-rate arts institutions and a distinctly American cuisine, and is home base for one of the few original spirits that has conquered taste buds the world over.
Standout feature: The Kentucky Derby. The race lasts only two minutes, but the preparation, facilities, legacies and culture that surround the crown make a fascinating region all the more so.
Convene here: The Kentucky Exposition Center. It’s the state’s largest, with 1.2 million sq. ft. Of exhibition, meeting and public areas, including a 19,000-seat arena. Kentucky International Convention Center, downtown, has a skywalk that leads to 2,300 guest rooms at hotels including the Louisville Marriott Downtown and Hyatt Regency Louisville. A total of 3,800 rooms are within walking distance. The center has 300,000 sq. ft. Of meeting exhibition space, with a 30,000-squarefoot ballroom. The Ohio River and Louisville landmarks are depicted in terrazzo floor patterns. The KFC Yum! Center, built in 2010, is a 22,000-seat multipurpose arena for hosting events, basketball games and concerts.
Stay here: 21c Museum Hotel. This downtown boutique hotel is part inn with 90 rooms, part contemporary art museum and an event destination with an award-winning restaurant onsite. With more than 9,000 sq. ft. Of space, receptions for up to 450 can be arranged. The historic neighborhood boasts galleries, museums, dining spots and other diversions. For more traditional Four-Diamond accommodations, consider the 1923-built Brown Hotel with 293 guest rooms and 26,000 sq. ft. Of meeting and ballroom space. Its English Renaissance architecture, marble flooring and mahogany furnishings will impress attendees.
Book here: Frazier History Museum. The galleries range from British Royal Armouries to Civil War artifacts along with temporary exhibits. A Princess Diana show opens in September. The first-floor Great Hall holds up to 150 attendees for events; the fourth-floor urban-style Loft can hold up to 360. A rooftop garden and a boardroom are also available for rental.
Dine here: English Grill. Located in the Brown Hotel, this elegant option combines local ingredients with international cooking styles and wines from around the globe. The showcase theater chef ’s table in the kitchen can be booked for small private dinners with tasting menus.
Why we love it: It’s at the vortex where Midwest and Southern cultures combine, exuding both warm hospitality and a cosmopolitan attitude. From professional sports franchises to renowned symphony, theater, dance performances and museums, the region’s offerings attract groups nationwide, as do its facilities, modest rates and ease-of-use.
Standout feature: A riverside setting that includes the towns of Covington and Newport. It also has a small-town feel, but has big-city amenities and fly- or drive-meeting accessibility, along with a world-renowned symphony (across the river) and a popular aquarium and zoo.
Convene here: Northern Kentucky Convention Center. Located across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, it has 110,000 sq. ft. Of exhibition and meeting space. The center is close to the burgeoning entertainment and dining district MainStrasse Village, as well as Newport on the Levee with its arts, concerts, dining and shopping options.
Stay here: Cincinnati Marriott at RiverCenter. This conference-friendly property on the riverbank is connected to the convention center and has 9,000 sq. ft. Of its own space.
Network here: BB Riverboats. Cruise the Ohio River in style on the Belle of Cincinnati or River Queen, traditional paddle wheelers for groups of up to 500. Smaller groups can also cordon off separate onboard areas for events.
Why we love it: College-town friendliness mixed with formidable and creative meeting spaces at affordable rates makes Bowling Green a winner. Fountain Square is a public park that sits at the center of the downtown revival and plays host to parades, art festivals and other civic events. Who doesn’t love a Corvette? The legendary automobile is celebrated at the National Corvette Museum, which can host group events for up to 675 attendees (500 seated). The site, with 115,000 sq. ft. Spread among several venues, includes a theater, boardroom, onsite restaurant and 10,000-seat amphitheater.
Standout feature: Civil War history. Take a driving tour of 18 sites in the area where several battles are commemorated, stopping along the way at Riverview at Hobson Grove, a stately manor with a small meeting space for 24, or Lost River Cave and Valley, a natural wonder offering underground boat tours and dramatic event space for up to 300.
Convene here: Sloan Convention Center. The facility has 35,500 sq. ft. And is suitable for groups of up to 1,700.
Stay here: Holiday Inn University Plaza – Bowling Green. The contemporary hotel with 218 guest rooms and 4,532 sq. ft. Of meeting space is adjacent to the Sloan Convention Center and near the 18- hole CrossWinds Golf Course.
Network here: Historic L&N Depot at the Historic Railpark and Train Museum. Make time to explore the museum before gathering amid the nostalgic and classy surroundings of the depot or restored dining railcars, best for events with up to 200 attendees.
Why we love it: It’s the festival capital of Kentucky with more than 20 substantial annual events throughout the year. Situated on the banks of the Ohio River, Owensboro is Kentucky’s third largest city. Expect more than the popular soap box derby; here there’s everything from barbecue cook-offs to bluegrass concerts, fine arts to fine dining, and art festivals to Broadway shows.
Standout feature: Sport facilities. Owensboro is known as Kentucky’s No. 1 sports town (so designated by Sports Illustrated). It has two large baseball complexes, two 10-field soccer complexes, a stateof- the-art four-field football complex, a 5,000-seat arena, a year-round ice arena and a year-round indoor sports center.
Convene here: The RiverPark Center. This regional performing arts and civic center hosts hundreds of events each year, including professional Broadway touring performances. The center is also home to the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art, the Owensboro Museum of Science and History, and the Western Kentucky Botanical Garden. The main theater holds 1,500; several other areas, such as the Field Founder’s Room with space for up to 50, are ideal for receptions and meetings.
Stay here: Courtyard Owensboro. The 109- room hotel provides 952 sq. ft. Of meeting space and is just 10 minutes outside the downtown area.
Network here: International Bluegrass Music Museum. This museum preserves and showcases the history, collections and artifacts of bluegrass music with Kentucky roots. Some areas are available for rental. Meet and mingle around classic instruments and hall-of-fame memorabilia, and catch a performance by traditional cloggers in a replicated 1950s cafe.
Capitol building, Frankfort
Why we love it: The capital city is home to only 25,000-plus residents, with government offices, industry heavyweights and rural culture in the surrounding region making for distinctive delights.
Convene here: Thomas D. Clark History Center. The classic building has two major spaces available for groups: The 4,000-square-foot Brown-Forman Corporation Kentucky Room and adjacent Cralle Day Garden work for groups of up to 200, and the 3,666-square-foot Hilary J. Boone Commonwealth Hall holds up to about 150 for a seated reception.
Stay here: The Capital Plaza Hotel in the historic district. It offers 189 rooms and more than 8,000 sq. ft. Of meeting and event space.
Capital city: Frankfort
State dance: Clogging
Insect: Viceroy butterfly >
State slogan: “Kentucky: Unbridled Spirit”
Official state automobile: Chevrolet Corvette
Horse: Thoroughbred >
Lexington—George Clooney, Ashley Judd, Mary Todd Lincoln and Jim Varney. Louisville— Muhammad Ali, Wendell Berry , Tom Cruise, Diane Sawyer, Hunter S. Thompson. Owensboro—Johnny Depp, the Everly Brothers, Florence Henderson and Darrell Waltrip.
Bowling Green Area CVB: visitbgky.com
Frankfort/Franklin County Tourist & Convention Commission: visitfrankfort.com
Kentucky Dept. of Travel: kentuckytourism.com
Louisville CVB: gotolouisville.com
Northern Kentucky CVB: northernkentuckycvb.com
Owensboro-Daviess County CVB: visitowensboro.com
Kick Back and Sip a Few Brews or Bourbons
Bourbon of the Bluegrass
Known for single-barrel and blended bourbons from their state’s famous distilleries, Kentucky entrepreneurs have also branched out into craft beer. Brewery tour options can be found at brewgrasstrail.com. Lexington stops on the Brewgrass Trail include Country Boy Brewing, West Sixth Brewing, The Beer Trappe, Pazzo’s Pizza Pub and Lexington Beerworks.
Your group can also celebrate bourbon with tours to historic working distilleries such as Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve. Most are situated along the parkway between Lexington and Bardstown or Elizabethtown, but also accessible from Louisville.